Are people having trouble understanding you when you speak, but you’re not really sure why? The hardest part about improving your English pronunciation is figuring out what you might be doing wrong. Here are the top 5 reasons why people might be misunderstanding you, and some quick tips for how to fix each of these issues.
1. Stressing individual words incorrectly
If you usually speak with native English speakers, this will be the number one reason why they misunderstand you. It’s very hard for native English speakers to ‘translate’ a word spoken as ‘caLENdar’ to the way they would pronounce it, ‘CALendar’.
Non-native English speakers don’t have as much of a problem with this, and will probably still understand what you’re trying to say.
Quick fix: Listen carefully to the way people around you pronounce their words. If you hear a pronunciation that is different from yours, check the dictionary (even if it’s a common word) to be sure that you’re stressing it correctly. Some commonly mis-stressed words that I hear (with proper stress in capitals) include: PURchase, COLleague, phoTOGraphy and ecoNOMic. You will also find a number of commonly mispronounced words listed in the ‘How to Pronounce…’ section of this blog.
2. Stressing the wrong words in a sentence.
Remember that you can completely change the meaning of a sentence by stressing different words in that sentence. For example, you could say this sentence in a number of different ways:
“I didn’t say we should drive this way.”
If you stress I, you emphasize that taking that route wasn’t your idea. On the other hand, if you stress drive, you emphasize the mode of transport.
If you don’t pay close attention to the words that you stress, you could end up sending a completely different message than the one you intended.
Think about placing added emphasis on the word that is most important to your meaning. You can add emphasis by lengthening the word, saying it slightly louder and/or changing the pitch of your voice slightly. Listen to Part 8 of the Pronunciation Short Course for further discussion.
3. Pronouncing certain consonant sounds incorrectly
If people are misunderstanding you, it could very well be due to you confusing what we call ‘voiced’ and ‘unvoiced’ sounds. You might substitute ‘p’ for ‘b’ or ‘t’ for ‘d’, for example. These sounds are so easily confused because their only difference is whether or not you use your voice to produce them. If you aren’t careful, you could be making mistakes like saying ‘tuck’ for ‘duck’ or ‘pay’ for ‘bay’.
Pay attention to how you use your voice when you speak. You should be able to feel the vibration of your vocal cords when you make voiced sounds (b, d, g, v, z, r, l, m, n, ng, dge, zh, and voiced th). You can also try to make lists of pairs of words that use the sounds you find challenging and practice repeating those. Record yourself so you can hear whether you’re making any progress.
4. Mixing up short and long vowel sounds
Vowel sounds, like consonant sounds, can also be confused easily. The main problem with vowels happens when you mix up long and short vowel sounds. For example, the long ‘ee’ sound in ‘seat’ with the short ‘i’ sound in ‘sit.’ If you confuse these sounds, you end up saying completely different words. This can get confusing in conversation and forces people to draw much more from the context of your speech than the speech itself.
Make practice word lists like the ones you made for the consonant sounds and practice the sounds that are difficult for you.
5. Forgetting to finish your words
Do you have a tendency to let your word endings drop? I often hear people drop the ‘ed’ ending off of words in the past tense, for example. This is a dangerous mistake because not only is your pronunciation wrong, but it also sounds like you’re making a grammatical mistake. People could judge you based on this type of error.
Do everything you can to articulate your word endings. One exercise that might help is to move the word ending onto the front of the following word. This will only work if the following word begins with a vowel sound. For example, try saying ‘talk tuh lot’ instead of ‘talked a lot’. Check out Part 5 of the Pronunciation Short Course for more information on linking.